Friday, September 6, 2013

A New Grind: Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn (review)

A few weeks ago I gave my early impressions of Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn (Respectable Remix). After getting my hands on the release copy and dabbling a bit in the end-game I feel I am ready to give my say. While a lot of my initial impressions have been upheld, some have not. Also, please bear in mind that this is an MMO, the game now might be completely different in a few months and, as always, I reserve the right to change my opinion at any time.

The Short
+highly polished
+a ton of things to do
+looks gorgeous
+tries to bring a full fledged Final Fantasy story to an MMO

-extremely grind-heavy
-few original ideas
-fails to deliver on the story

Score: 7/10

The Long
Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn is a curious creature in many ways. It is a relaunch of the largely broken Final Fantasy XIV, porting over the main story elements and world design with overhauled gameplay and zones. However, lousy lineage and a unique development cycle is only the start to the curiosities: a mixed bag story occasionally offers glimmers of developing into something amazing but routinely gets held up by run and fetch quests; combat ramps eventually to a satisfying level of difficulty which is sometimes ruined by odd hit detection and unreliable enemy spell timers; the world is a seemingly open for exploration but invisible walls frequently halt your progress. Ultimately, the game is an unabashed grind-fest that offers enough different things to moil over that it continues to compel you to log back in.

A Realm Reborn does its best to try and bring a full fledged story worthy of the Final Fantasy pedigree but ends up falling flat at numerous points. The most glaring flaw here is that the main story quests are often unnaturally elongated. At one point, after being praised a hero for clearing a dungeon I was tasked with the utterly boring job of delivering a missive to a character in another city who then instructed me to return to initial quest giver. While my job as an errand boy was ostensibly designed to lead my to the next quest hub it hardly seemed like the fitting reward for a renown slayer of monsters. Unfortunately, these types of moments frequently crop up and eventually I found myself clicking-through or speed reading walls of quest dialogue which provided little flavor to the story. On this, the sparse voicing of quest dialogue (about 5% of main story quests are voiced) ensures that you will be forced to read a lot if you want to truly absorb yourself in the lore. I suppose this would be a shame but the lore is as uninspired as the fetch quests that expand it. On a whole, the story arc is bumpy with a couple of genuine highlights. At around level 30, just as the story had all but lost me, a decent (and unexpected) shake in the plot pulled me back in. The plot then slowly faded until picking up speed again in the last few levels. You can't help but feel that if the main story wasn't so padded the pacing would feel a lot better; it feels as if a passable skeleton of a story was written and then filled with a few too many barrels of lard to flesh it out. Normally the story is mostly throwaway fare in MMORPGs and Square ought to be applauded for trying to spin an epic yarn. That said, effort and execution are two different things.

Combat and Gameplay Mechanics
Mechanically, A Realm Reborn does little to push the established limits of the genre. The trinity (tank, healer, dps) is prevalent and each class has its clearly defined role. Cooldowns and mana bars govern skill usage and each class has a few tricks up their sleeve to differentiate themselves from the others. While not innovative, the mechanics are soundly implemented and the variation between classes within each role is sufficient to inspire the desire to experiment. Here is where A Realm Reborn probably pushes the envelope most, any character can become a master of all classes and switching between classes is as simple as equipping an appropriate weapon. Trying out different classes is encouraged, though at least for the time being, most people have fixated on leveling a single class to the cap and then working on the remaining classes.

The difficulty curve in A Realm Reborn is expertly managed. As you level, the main quests frequently require grouping (facilitated through an automatic finder tool) to tackle dungeons and specific raid-like fights. The difficulty slowly escalates and does a fantastic job of introducing advanced mechanics. The first few fights introduce the concepts of the trinity roles and just as most players have grasped the mechanics more difficult fights are introduced. Fairly early on (around level 20) the player is entreated to a basic raid fight which is fairly tough but allows easy restarting and minimal punishment for failure. The whole setup ensures that players are at least minimally competent by the time the end game comes around at which point the game pulls no punches and each fight feels appropriately epic. Marring this excellent design, however, are unreliable hitboxes and funky enemy spell timers. On more than a few occasions I found myself taking damage from attacks I was certain I was out of the way of; the worst offender here was one where I successfully activated a backstab attack and was somehow hit by a frontal attack. Tied to this are spell timer bars which occasionally seem to end after the attack has occurred making timing movement unnecessarily difficult. These issues will likely be rectified in a patch but are nonetheless frustrating.

A Realm Reborn does an excellent job in the visuals department. Each zone feels unique and quests prod you to the edges of the map where you can reliably expect a gorgeous vista to reward your efforts. As you venture deeper, new and varied zones are gradually opened up and small touches like changing the rendition of the battle theme music provide a bit of spice when things seem apt to go stale. On it's surface, the world appears to be vast and waiting to be explored. However, when you set out on such an adventure you will almost immediately find yourself running headlong into an invisible wall. In reality, the world is a very tight place and the player is given extremely limited freedom. The case example here is that most buildings feature automatic doors that open when approached, that is unless they don't open at all; if the door opens you will at some point need to enter that building for reasons beyond mere curiosity. Quests ensure that you see nearly every nook of each zone and, once you have exhausted them, little else remains to be seen. Once you realize that much of the world is a facade, the illusion that the superlative visuals provide is broken.

As tried and true as the combat mechanics are, so to is the overall philosophy of leveling up. Early on rewards and levels are gained at breakneck speed. At around level 15 things start to slow and by level 40 have reached a crawl. Every aspect of the game from crafting to gathering to dungeons follow this escalating time sink pattern. While the grind can be appealing and can provide a ton of longevity for those who dig it, those who detest it are in for a rough ride. Fortunately, the game provides enough activities to do that if you find yourself tired grinding on one thing you can always switch up and grind another. The player is enticed to level up each class, complete hunting logs, master the various crafting professions, gain status with a faction, participate in open world quests, and complete dungeons and raids. Each of these activities provides rewards in the form of gear or abilities although the rewards are often spaced quite far apart. I imagine that a typical player wanting to complete every activity there is to do in the game could be playing for several months with the current content. The variety in things to do is compelling enough to keep logging in, at least for the time being.

A Note on Server Issues
While much hoopla has been made about the server overloads rendering the game unplayable for a large chunk of players this has been, by and large, rectified at the time of writing. While it was certainly annoying, I think it would be unfair to dock the game points for an issue which is solved. Further, Square has been pretty classy about the whole thing extending free game time and offering refunds without question.

Despite its foibles, A Realm Reborn transcends the apparent sum of its parts. The story, gameplay, and exploration are all tied to an incessant grind but as unimaginative as each of these aspects are, the game feels highly polished. If you are hungry for a quality rendering of all of the greatest hits of MMOs of the past years you will definitely find enjoyment here. On the other hand, if you are hoping for a reinvention of the wheel, keep fantasizing.